In-House Counsel: How can I be one?

Pursuing a career as an in-house counsel is still not a very common choice amongst law students. One of the major reasons for it being lack of knowledge about the work and requisite skill set to be a successful in-house counsel. Any and every career path requires one to be aware of its in and outs before making a career decision. Let’s learn more about this one!

Guiding your way:

Debosmita Nandy

An in-house counsel with ITC Limited for more than 8 years. Prior to this role, she worked in the disputes resolution team of Khaitan & Co LLP for 3 years.

She graduated from National University of Juridical Sciences in 2009. She is also the author of a legal blog The FiveThingsChecklist, where she writes articles on the practical aspects of being a lawyer.

Many of us aspire to work in corporate field. However, once you start researching about the options in the said field, they are endless. A student can opt to directly work with a law firm or work as a private counsel for a non-law firm i.e. as an in-house counsel. So what are the requisites of this career path and what can you expect? Let’s find out.

Working as an in-house counsel: What is it like?

1. A lawyer at a law firm or at a non-law firm: The Difference

The fundamental difference is the approach that one takes to the issue at hand. A law firm lawyer is usually a specialist in one particular area and his opinion is focused on legal issues only.
On the other hand, an in-house counsel is a generalist and his opinion is focused on both the law and the business. A law firm lawyer's opinion comes with disclaimers. An in-house counsel will be responsible for his opinion and the implementation or outcome of his opinion.

2. The kind of work you’ll be doing

Ideally, an in-house counsel should be versed with all aspects of the work. A specialization into contracts counsel, or a corporate counsel, or a disputes specialist happen with work experience. Industry dictates to some extent, the kind of work an in-house counsel does.
For eg. FMCG companies would require an extensive understanding of consumer laws, legal metrology, food standards, drugs and cosmetics etc. A media and entertainment company would require knowledge of IP and media laws. An information technology company would give emphasis on cyber laws and data protection.
However, the subjects may vary, the type of work usually remains the same.

3. Resolving disputes outside/inside the courtroom

The first endeavor should be to see if the dispute can be resolved as quickly as possible, because a long-drawn litigation is a cost to the company. Here, an in-house counsel can take on the role of a negotiator along with the business counterparts.
If the dispute is before the court, then an in-house counsel should make herself familiarize with all relevant documents to assess the case, research on points of law, strategize on the next steps and the external counsel to be engaged. A good in-house counsel will also prepare the first draft of the pleadings and take to the external counsel for a quick vetting.
Throughout the dispute process, the in-house counsel will have to take strategic calls on aspects like timelines, what applications to file, how to get interim relief and so on.

Your role as an individual in pursuing this path

1. How to start

I strongly believe one should gain experience in a wide range of fields, especially transaction work or dispute resolution before shifting in-house. They come in very handy and helps one stand out among in-house counsels.
The work of an in-house counsel is mostly categorized into –

a) contracts

b) problem solving

c) dispute resolution

d) compliance

e) strategic advice

2. Requisite skill set

1. People skill - It's very important as an in-house counsel to be able to manage various stakeholders.
2. Commercial awareness - Understanding the business of the company is crucial to function as an effective in-house counsel.
3. Ability to see the big picture - This comes with experience. Without the ability to foresee the outcome of an intended action, an in-house counsel will not be able to deliver the best advice.
4. A strategic mindset - An in-house counsel is the strategic partner of the business in achieving their goals. Analyzing the legal risks, ways to mitigate them, having a contingency plan in case of any violation are all part of having a strategic mindset.

3. Interning to get an experience beforehand

It would be best to start at a smaller company, rather than a big team, which will expose one to all kinds of work that is done by an in-house counsel. It's also a good idea to go a litigation internship as this experience is valued as an in-house counsel.

In Conclusion,

You don't have to choose right now whether you want to be a transactional lawyer or an in-house counsel. It's a career path that will happen over time. Focus on getting all types of practical experience in working as a lawyer.

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